by Rich Howells for The Wilkes-Barre Times Leader:
SCRANTON – A free film screening of “Out in the Silence” sparked a lively and oftentimes personal conversation about inclusion and equality for the local lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community on Jan. 29 at Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church on Wyoming Avenue.
Filmmaker Joe Wilson received a mass of hate mail for placing a wedding announcement to his partner Dean Hamer in his local newspaper, but he was also sent a letter from Kathy Springer, a woman from his hometown whose son, C.J., was being bullied for also being openly gay.
The couple returned to Oil City, Pa., to chronicle the 16-year-old’s struggle for acceptance and confront ongoing bigotry in the small town that Wilson had moved away from years before.
The award-winning documentary touched many of the more than 60 attendees, including hosts Rev. Peter D’Angio of St. Luke’s and Rabbi Daniel Swartz of the Temple Hesed. They were joined by Rosanne Kolberg, a member of NEPA Citizens In Action whose daughter is gay, and Jessica Rothchild, president and founder of Scranton Inclusion, the University of Scranton’s first officially recognized gay-straight alliance, for a subsequent Q&A discussion.
“This is a town like Oil City that has faced and is facing economic problems. I’ve got to feel like that niceness could be turned into a much broader welcome than it is, especially given some of the other towns around here and the way they treated immigrants, for example, and that can be turned into an island of welcoming in a stormy sea,” Swartz said.
“It’s been important for Peter and me to speak up because, unfortunately, sometimes, on issues like welcoming the LGBT community, religion has been on the wrong side. There are plenty of us who believe that all of us are created in the image of God.”
D’Angio, an openly gay pastor who leads “a progressive faith community” in his church, said that he has had his own “Oil City moment” in Scranton when he reached out to another local pastor, who considered him a sinner for being a homosexual.
“It can be a lonely place for all of us who are LGBT in this city, and I would hope that the conversation would get us to have gay-straight alliances that don’t just exist at the University of Scranton but exist in the city for the good of the city,” D’Angio said.
Rothchild said that while University President Rev. Scott R. Pilarz and Diocese of Scranton Bishop Joseph Bambera have not tried to ban their alliance, they did have some difficulty forming the group and have been wary of others who are not as tolerant.
“Being in such a religious community, and especially at the University of Scranton, it has been a bit difficult. We’ve had a few issues where we’ve had to watch out for people who are more radical in their beliefs and don’t want us doing what we want to do,” Rothchild said.
Kolberg, who says she gets “verklempt” whenever she watches “Out in the Silence,” said that her daughter is marrying her partner soon and stressed that acceptance starts at home.
“Thank God my daughter did not have to drop out of school or be harassed, but there are many other kids that are still getting harassed, and that’s one kid too many,” Kolberg said.
Those in attendance also came forward with their own tales of discrimination and perseverance.
One Scranton woman named Debbie said that she found a local church where she felt included until she applied for membership.
“I was told that unless I denounced my life, and I must say ‘life’ because if I choose the word ‘lifestyle’ that implies I have a choice, I couldn’t become a member of that church,” she explained. “I still go to that church every Sunday. The pastor and I know each other, and he knows my story very well, and he has to see me sit there every single day loving God with all my heart. Sometimes you have to stand up and you have to be present in a place where you’re not wanted.”